FISH FACTOR: Huge Tanner crab cohort good news for Gulf of Alaska

Unlike in the Bering Sea, there’s good news for crab in the Gulf of Alaska.

A huge cohort of Tanner crab that biologists have been tracking in the Westward region for three years showed up again in this summer’s survey.

“We were optimistic and we did find them again. Pretty much all the way across the board from Kodiak all the way out to False Pass we found those crab and in good quantity,” said Nat Nichols, area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak.

The bairdi Tanners are the larger cousins of snow crab (opilio Tanners) found in the Bering Sea.

“The very, very rough preliminary numbers look like we’ve at least hit the minimum abundance thresholds in all three areas of Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula,” Nichols said. “So we’re excited about that.”

The last Tanner opener was in 2020 for 400,000 pounds, the minimum abundance number for a district to have a fishery. A fleet of 49 boats participated in that fishery and averaged more than $4 per pound for the harvestable male crabs that typically weigh between 2 to 4 pounds each.

“A Tanner crab is getting to be legal-sized around age four or five, and then they start to die of natural causes or age out of the population by around seven or eight,” Nichols explained.

“Once they start to become legal, we can expect them to hang around for potentially three years, and there’ll be more small crab behind them so you can kind of think of this as the front edge.”

The new cohort, Nichols said, is one of the largest ever. It appears to be made up of two big year classes with a broad range of sizes that could support several years of fishing.

“In 2019 the estimate was 223 million and then in 2020 it was down to 108 million. Every year, that number gets smaller, because there’s pretty high mortality on smaller crab. Anybody who’s cut open a halibut stomach knows that,” Nichols said.

“And a lot of those are females so they won’t be in the fishery. But the male crab are getting bigger and approaching legal size. So even though you’re seeing estimates go down quite a bit, it’s still going to turn into a pretty good number of legal grab in the water.”

Several more regulatory calculations must still be met as managers move their way through the survey data before a 2022 Tanner fishery gets a green light.

“But based on meeting the minimal abundance thresholds it at least opens the door for a conversation about six different fisheries,” Nichols said. “And that doesn’t even include the Semedi Islands overlap section of the Kodiak District which would be open also. Under that scenario, that would be seven different sections open.”

A Tanner announcement will be made in early November for the fisheries which open in mid-January.

By the way, Tanner crab is always spelled with a capitol “T” because it is named after discoverer Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross which explored Alaska waters in the late 1800s.

Fishing updates

Alaska’s 2021 salmon catch has topped 219 million fish, which is 15 percent better than the preseason forecast of 190 million.

The two biggest moneymakers exceeded expectations the most. The sockeye haul came in at 54 million compared to the predicted 46.5 million reds.

Similarly, the pink salmon catch of nearly 151 million swamped the projection by 27 million.

And although the run of chum salmon was disappointing, falling about 4 million short of the 15.3 million projection, nearly 5 million chums were caught since Aug. 1, “making it one of the three largest chum harvests in the last decade,” according to fishery economist Dan Lesh at the McKinley Research Group who compiles weekly tracking reports for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The coho catch of nearly 2.3 million is 1.6 million shy of the forecast and a harvest of 244,000 chinook salmon is 25,000 less than expectations.

But despite the overall bigger salmon catch, smaller fish sizes will lead to less impressive harvest totals and revenues to Alaska fishermen. Yet, with higher dock prices across the board, it will still produce a good payday.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will release the catch totals, fish prices and overall revenues by region in early October.

As salmon season draws to a close, many other fall fisheries are underway or gearing up.

At Southeast, beam trawlers are on the grounds for a third go at northern pink shrimp totaling 650,000 pounds in two districts. The spot shrimp fishery opens on October 1 for 457,300 pounds, and the Dungeness crab reopens that same day for a two month fishery.

Southeast’s sea cucumber fishery opens to divers on October 4 with a catch of nearly 1.9 million pounds. Diving for red sea urchins also opens with a harvest set at nearly 3 million pounds.

At Prince William Sound, cod opened on Sept. 1 for pot and longline gears on boats less than 50 feet, and a fishery is ongoing for 32,600 pounds of lingcod.

Chignik opens to sea cucumber divers on Sept. 20 with a 15,000 pound harvest limit.

Kodiak opens for cukes on Oct. 1 with a 120,000 pound catch quota, and for 20,000 pounds at the South Peninsula.

Kodiak crabbers are still pulling up Dungeness crab through the end of October. That catch is at 1.3 million pounds so far.

Alaska halibut fishermen have taken 70 percent of their nearly 19 million-pound catch limit with less than 6 million pounds left to go. Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Juneau are the top ports for landings and dock prices remain at over $6 per pound, topping $7 at Homer reflecting continuing high demand for fresh fish.

Alaska and West Coast catches aren’t satisfying American’s appetites for halibut and trade data show that the U.S. has imported 10.3 million pounds of Atlantic halibut from Eastern Canada so far this year valued at nearly $77 million.

For sablefish, just more than half of the more than 43 million-pound catch has been landed.

Fishing for pollock, cod, flounders and other groundfish continues throughout the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The Gulf pollock fishery reopened on Sept. 1.

Proposed catches for 2022 groundfish is on the agenda of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council when it meets via Zoom Oct. 6-15.

Foregone fish bucks

As Alaska struggles to find new sources of revenue, its leaders might look to reining in the losses from fish and crab taken in federal waters (three to 200 miles out) of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea that goes elsewhere.

Data compiled by NOAA research economists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center provide a breakdown of the shares of groundfish and ex-vessel (dock side) values by vessel owner state of residency.

For all groundfish taken in Alaska in 2020, a 0.78 share went to non-Alaska vessels.

Examples by species show that a 0.76 share of all flatfish was taken by non-Alaska vessels, a 0.69 share of Pacific cod, 0.88 for pollock, 0.69 for all rockfish, and 0.38 for sablefish (black cod).

For the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, 0.83 of all groundfish was taken by non-Alaska vessels; including a 0.70 share of cod, 0.91 of pollock and 0.71 of sablefish.

The 2020 ex-vessel value of the Bering Sea groundfish catches totaled $718.2 million.

It’s less of a loss in the Gulf of Alaska where in 2020, a 0.4 share of all groundfish was taken by Outside vessels including 0.4 of all flatfish, 0.15 of cod, 0.47 of Gulf pollock, and 0.34 of sablefish.

The out-of-state information plus an incredible array of user friendly data is amassed by the Alaska Fisheries Information Network APEX reporting system with annual inputs from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and NOAA Fisheries.

It includes Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation reports for all groundfish and crab species, numbers and types of vessels, wholesale and dockside values and prices, landings and values by fisheries, distributions of quota share holdings, harvesting and processing employment data and much more. Find it at akfin.psmfc.org/

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
09/22/2021 - 10:00am